Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2012-02-28
Used in spice blends, flavourings and liqueurs, the cinnamon of Ceylon comes to us via a long and delicate process which begins in the Sri Lankan jungle during the rainy season, when the precious bark of the cinnamon trees’s young branches is ready for harvest.
Between Hikkaduwa and Ambalangoda on the island’s south coast we come upon a glade populated by cinnamon trees four to five metres high with glossy, attractive leaves fifteen to twenty centimetres long. Planted just six months ago, the trees are already old enough to begin yielding cinnamon; skilfully wielded machetes slice off braches that are thick enough to use, one by one. It is important that they be harvested while still young: the spice that comes from young branches is of a distinctly superior quality. Mature trees can grow as high as fifteen metres.
The world’s best cinnamon
The cinnamon tree is a cousin of the bay laurel and the avocado tree; it grows in Ceylon (which became Sri Lanka in 1972), China and Indonesia. The cinnamon of Ceylon - Cinnamomum verum - is the genus’s main species and also the finest. Its bark yields the world’s best cinnamon: a tempting ochre-coloured spice that is both elegant and subtle.
The cinnamon tree gets its name from the spice it provides, and not the contrary. Cinnamon comes from the transformation of the inner bark, which, once dried, takes on the shape of small parchment-like rolled tubes. Then it resembles a cane or reed - canna in Latin, which is very close to the spice’s French name: cannelle. The cinnamon tree’s greenish flower is not particularly appealing; it gives off a rather unpleasant odour. The fruit is a small purple berry or drupe.
From tree to spice
After the branch is cut it is peeled like a carrot and any irregularities are evened out with a knife; this is the job of the first spice worker. The inner bark is then carefully removed by a second, younger worker with superior skill and, especially, excellent eyesight. Holding the branch between his deformed toes, he first rubs it for a while with a sort of metallic rod in order to bring any moisture to the surface. Next, he cuts long strips which, once dried, will be used to spice up cakes, biscuits, meat pies, some curries and dark ale, among others. But for now it just looks like a white film, fragile and thin, without any particular appeal. As it dries it will progressively change colour, begin to curl and harden... until it finally becomes a fragrant cinnamon stick.
The cinnamon tree is very generous. The stripped branch becomes firewood; the bark chips are used as fertiliser and the leaves, gathered into bundles in the glade, are sold to a local distiller. This last boils and distils the leaves; the resulting thick, scented liquid is used in essential oils and the natural cinnamon extract used in cosmetics, perfumes and baking. Each fifty-kilo bundle of leaves is sold for around one euro.
Inside the distillery, the heat is brutal: the boiler, fired by leaves that have already been boiled and recycled into fuel, produces the steam that heats the new leaves which have arrived from the glade in bundles. In a little more than six hours, two and a half bundles – 125 kilos of leaves – will be used to produce a concentrated extract which the distiller will sell for less than ten euros per small bottle.
The strips cut from the branch in the rudimentary workshop dry in the open air during three days. Then they are stuffed with smaller bits of cinnamon bark and placed on a sort of hanging rack under roof beams of the where they curl up and become darker and more solid. Finally, they are packed together to make ‘sticks’ that reach the required 42 inches: slightly more than one metre. Depending on their quality, sticks are sold for 1,000 to (rarely) 6,000 rupees per kilo – 6 to 40 euros.
A good read
Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics, 1975)